Molly Spearman knows her education allies have “high expectations” for her.
The Saluda County Republican, who will be sworn in as the state’s next education superintendent Wednesday, said she hears frequently that, under her leadership, the S.C. Department of Education is “ ‘going to change. Molly’s there now.’ ”
“I’m going to do everything I can, but I’m not going to do this alone,” Spearman said recently in an interview from her Columbia office.
The former state representative, deputy schools superintendent under Democrat Inez Tenenbaum and, most recently, leader of the S.C. Association of School Administrators, will have help. She counts lawmakers, education advocates and, in a more recent development, GOP Gov. Nikki Haley among her allies.
She also brings to her new job a history of taking adversarial stances, when she thought it was necessary.
For instance, Spearman said she wants lawmakers to commit to increasing education spending by $600 million to make up for recession-era cuts. The money could be phased in over three to four years, she said.
It won’t be her first fight.
As executive director for the school administrators association, Spearman fought outgoing Republican education Superintendent Mick Zais, a retired Army brigadier general, on his plan to grade teachers — from “A” to “F” — saying it was “too punitive.”
In 2009, she filed a lawsuit against Gov. Mark Sanford that led to a court order forcing the Republican to accept $750 million in federal stimulus money.
In the 1990s, Scott Price with the S.C. School Boards Association said then Rep. Spearman excelled at building support for education reforms. She understands “in order to get things accomplished, you have to bring people along.”
While willing to take “tough stands,” Spearman said she wants to restore a “positive culture” at the Education Department.
“I’m not here to bash the Legislature or school board members,” she said. “I’m here to get things done, and I’m going to try to do that in my style, which is working behind the scenes and building relationships.
“For these four years, I’m going to do what I think is right.”
Priorities: Standards and $600 million
Spearman said her top priority is to complete a revision of the state’s K-12 math and English standards, outlining what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. That revision was ordered last year by state lawmakers who wanted to reject the state’s existing, politically toxic Common Core education standards.
Spearman also said she will advocate for the General Assembly to fund education at the level recommended by state law. Lawmakers let education spending fall below that level during the recession.
It will take nearly $600 million to catch up, but Spearman said she will recommend the state phase in that additional spending over three or four years.
Spearman, who came out in support of Haley’s 2015 budget plan on Monday, said she will push for more money for school districts to upgrade their technology.
“Technology could be the one thing that could help wipe out the disparity” between rural and urban schools, Spearman said. “You can go on YouTube and get a high-quality lesson in algebra or whatever. That’s good, and that’s never been available before.”
A former classroom teacher in rural Saluda and Lexington counties, Spearman also wants to partner large districts with smaller districts so that they can share resources, such as technical expertise – something small districts lack.
Spearman also said she has heard that smaller rural districts “have not been able to get ... support,” which they rely heavily on, from the Education Department in the last four years. She plans on reviewing the department’s resources to ensure districts are getting the help they need.
Committed to collaboration
Spearman’s election coincides with a shift in the education debate over the last couple of years. It started, she said, when educators and business leaders started working together.
Spearman and a group of superintendents were trying to define what a high school graduate should know and be able to do, she recalled. Then, she learned the state Chamber of Commerce was doing the same thing.
The two groups shared their visions and, from that, grew a coalition of businesses and educators called Transform S.C.
Spearman was integral to that group’s formation – offering financial support for the coalition through the school administrators association, said Mike Brenan, a Transform S.C. co-chairman and Haley’s appointee to the S.C. Board of Education.
“Molly is committed to being more collaborative, working with all the interest groups who think they have skin in the public education game,” Brenan added. “While listening to the traditional voices in public education, she is just as committed to listening to business and industry. ... She will bring people together.”
Haley as ally ‘a real advantage’
Spearman also says her emerging alliance with Haley will benefit the state.
She said she got to know Haley when the governor invited her and other educators to give input on Haley’s education reform plan, adopted last year by the Legislature.
“We didn’t know each other very well, and the better we got to know each other, we trusted each other,” Spearman said.
“That’s going to be a real advantage for me,” she said, adding, “I take it very seriously that I do have a lot of trust with educators built in, and I don’t want to spoil that.”